Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cowboy Valkyrie

A few weeks ago I made a post about the Lives of the Cowboys radio show on National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion.  The episode that I listened to that day involved Lefty and Dusty on their way to renew their cowboy licenses, leading to Lefty testing his bar fighting skillz against a genuine Valkyrie.  Since I started this blog, I have spent some time considering the shared roots of both the modern western novel and the modern fantasy novel in Germanic folklore.  In time, I will dedicate a series of lofty and intellectual posts to that very topic.  For now, though, the notion of a Cowboy Valkyrie and a Wild West Valhalla have captured my mind, particularly coming on the heels of my own recent brush with mortality.

So when cowboy meets his maker, is thrown from his horse, meets the wrong end of a noose, is snake bit, scalped, shot in a range war, stabbed in a saloon brawl, freezes in Blue Norther, succumbs to a case of gentleman’s complaint after engaging the wrong soiled dove, or any of the other honorable ways that a cowpoke can pass, who descends from the heavens to measure his worth? 

Clearly, the only answer is Nancy Callahan from Sin City.  Not surprising to find the Valkyrie here, as Viking references are spread throughout all the original comics.  Normally I would choose the visual of the comics versions over film versions, but Jessica Alba really defines Nancy Callahan.  If I lay dying, breathing my last breath out on the prairie, let’s hope its Nancy Callahan who ropes me and guides me to Valhalla.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confessions of a Wounded Cowpoke

I have stated a few times in this blog that the period I like best in the western genre is the first half of the 19th century.  Part of it is that the tropes standard western (the sheriff, the saloon, the school marm, etc) have yet to be set.  Another attraction is that the frontiersman moving west did not always walk into the middle of the continent wide race war that described most of the cross-cultural interactions in the latter half of the century.  In history, Jim Bowie married into a Mexican family in Texas, and Sam Houston was married to a Cherokee woman.  In fiction, mountain man stories often reflect the reality of romantic entanglements between hunters and natives, perhaps best demonstrated when Boone finds peace and emotional solace with Teal Eye in The Big Sky.    Conflict and violence are always possible in these stories, but they are not inevitable.  Sometimes love, friendship, and family emerge.

What has put me in mind of this?  I live in New England, in a region that is not just white and black, but also almost equally made up of Puerto Rican, South Asian, and Eastern European immigrants.  I have spent most of the year so far getting ready for open heart surgery, and have spent the last week in recovery from that surgery.  Some of my doctors, nurses, and medical techs were from the United States, but others were from Poland, Russia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Italy, Tanzania, Trinidad, India, and Japan.  I feel as if the world came together in the last few weeks to help me heal and get through this.  The western world that captures my imagination is one where such things are possible.  You never know what you will find across the next ridgeline, but there should always be the possibility of love, hope, and salvation.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poets of the Wilderness

I have felt for some time that being a fan of westerns and being an environmentalist went hand in hand.  My appreciation for westerns rose dramatically when I started spending my vacations hiking mountain trails and wandering deserts.  I am halfway through a terrific weird western by Peter Brandvold called Bad Wind Blowing, and part of my enjoyment is that I have rafted down the Poudre River where the novel takes place.  Good western authors write with love and adoration for their setting.  They use the transformative nature of the wild and the freedom to recreate oneself away from society to shape their characters.  If you love the western, you must love the west, and the Earth from which it comes.  With that, here are some better formed words from poets of the wild:

“In God's wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”- John Muir

“We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

“To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”- Theodore Roosevelt, State of the Union address

If any of this resonated with you, give a try to High Country News, a great journal for “people who care about the West”.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Steampunk Gals, Won’t You Come Home Tonight (Possibly NSFW)

For a blog ostensibly about Westerns, Steampunk comes up pretty often here.  Steampunk is crazy little genre where the 19th century and science fiction come together, usually involving pith helmets, lace, goggles, and steam powered gizmos.  I could go on, but there are already some great blogs on the subject that can tell you more.  Instead, I’d like to tell you why I personally like Steampunk.

First, steampunk can be a natural intersection of the western and science fiction.  Lose the pith helmet, put on a ten gallon hat, and turn your sixgun into a gatling pistol and voila!  Steampunk cowboy. 

Second, Steampunk is visually stunning.  Really.  Watch this video, for example.

Third, Steampunk girls.  Wow.

By the way, the woman with the vibrator looking pistol is Lady Clankington.  She makes Steampunk inspired sex toys.  Visit her at her web site.  Yippy kay yay!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Journey to Shiloh: Harrison Ford's First Cowboy Movie

I caught a surprisingly good movie a few days ago on my favorite channel, Encore WesternsJourney to Shiloh first caught my attention because of the cast.  The lead is a 27 year old James Caan, along with a cast of future stars including Harrison Ford, Jan Michael Vincent, Don Stroud, and Michael Sarrazin, as well as former child actors Paul Peterson (The Donna Reed Show) and Michael Burns (Wagon Train).  They form a group of West Texas toughs called the Cochise County Killer Comanches, and head off to join the Texas cavalry in defense of Richmond during the Civil War.  So far, so good, until you get to the opening song.

Groan.  To my surprise, things picked up pretty quickly after that.  The seven long haired Texans (or actors in bad wigs) make their way from their Indian fighting frontier eastward, ready to join the Confederate States Army.  Along the way, they realize that they had never seen a slave before, much less owned one; never met a Yankee, much less fought one; weren’t really sure that they were Southerners; and, finally, that most people in these here civilized lands were ornery liars. 

They never do make it to Richmond, and end up in a Florida infantry unit marching to go fight Grant at a place call Shiloh.  By the time the battle ends, only single, now one-armed, long haired Texan survives to ride back home.  By my count, more of his compadres were killed by Johnny Rebs than by Bluebellies. 

Pro-Texas?  Anti-war?  Extolling the virtues of long haired, buckskin wearing ruffians over dandified easterners?  There are a lot of messages in Journey to Shiloh, and some good acting as well.  A nice find in the sea of B movies.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Prairie Home Companion: Lives of the Liberal Cowboys

National Public Radio is a constant in my home on the weekends, and once Car Talk and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me play, the radio just stays on through Prairie Home Companion.  It’s a show that I find annoying as often as I find it interesting, but one recurring sketch that always gets me is Lives of the Cowboys.

Lives of the Cowboys is about two middles aged, English major cowboys, Lefty and Dusty, who ride across the wide open prairie ruminating on love, life, and the difficulty of being liberal cowboys.  In a recent episode, the two cowboys were riding into Texas to renew their cowboy license, which apparently modern cowboys must do every ten years.

“What are you worried about, Dusty?” asked Lefty.

“I’m worried about riding into to Texas with a guy named Lefty carrying an ACLU card!” said Dusty.

“Don’t worry, Dusty, ACLU is my Arizona Cowboy Life Underwriting policy card.”

Once in Texas, the two line up for their cowboy tests, consisting of the "Six S"es- Sweat, Spit, Saunter, Squat, Stand Your Ground, and Saloon Fight.  All goes well until Lefty hits Saloon Fight, at which point he comes face to face with an honest to god Valkyrie, complete with a winged helmet, breast plate, and mad mezzo soprano opera skillz.  Mayhem and lust ensue, as it often does, leaving Lefty with a broken heart. 

There is something great about introspective, literate, hetero life mate cowboys riding the range, talking philosophy, and getting into adventures.  In fact, gather round the fire, younker, and let me tell you about the time that Thomas Jefferson and me invaded England…

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Stranger Tides: The Pirate - Cowboy Connection

As I write this post I feel as though I have aged forty years in the last month.  My heart, which has kept beating for 36 year despite a significant birth defect, is slowly giving up the ghost.  I groan when I move, I shuffle when I walk, and my body is a strange pattern of odd and random pains.  I write all this knowing that the miracles of modern medicine will make this all better in a matter of weeks, and that I will shortly be heading into a scientific Fountain of Youth.  Thus, today’s topic is the pirate fantasy novel, On Stranger Tides.

Pirates?  Isn’t this a blog about westerns?  Very astute, good reader, yes it is.  But the core of a good western and a good pirate novel are the same.  The best take a wayward and emotionally lost easterner, set them adrift in a frontier wilderness where they meet violent outcasts, engage in quasi-mystical adventure, and reinvent themselves.  Thus Boone Caudill’s journey from Kentucky to the mountains and back in The Big Sky, Dick Summer’s wagon train from Missouri to Oregon in The Way West, Alice Munro’s journey with Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans, and Josey Wales’ vengeance trail in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Mattie Ross’ search for her father’s killer in the Territories in True Grit.  In the same vein, we have On Stranger Tides


John Chandagnac is an 18th century puppeteer who makes his living as a wandering performer in Europe.  When tragedy strikes, John makes his way to the Caribbean seeking a new life, but to continual misfortune falls in with pirates.  In their company he learns that while the Old World of Europe has run out of magic, the New World is still a place of mystery where almost anything is possible.  John is reinvented as Jack Shandy, and learns that a new appreciation for the possibilities of magic and talent as a puppeteer are a powerful combination in a world of zombie pirates. 

What ensues is a struggle between rival voodoo pirate captains in search of the Fountain of Youth.  If this all sounds familiar, that could be because On Stranger Tides was the inspiration for the Monkey Island video game series as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the fourth movie coming out in 2011 will be explicitly based on the novel).

I came across On Stranger Tides at a time where every novel I read was a disappointment.  This novel reminded me that genre novels could be weird, brilliant, and moving.  On Stranger Tides also reinforced the core messages that I love in westerns- the world is large and wilder than you can know, and everyone has the potential to reinvent themselves into the hero they always wanted to be.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“I don’t like westerns (except for Unforgiven)”

I was talking with an intelligent, well read coworker recently about this blog when she told me that she doesn’t like westerns.  Over the course of the conversation, she listed a few exceptions, namely any movie with Clint Eastwood, any book by Larry McMurtry, adaptations of Shane, and a handful of others.  I hear this a lot.  At a picnic years ago I was talking with a woman writing her PhD dissertation on homosexuality in 1800’s Colorado and the backlash of anti-sodomy laws that followed.  To show her that I was interested in her topic, and by extension the history and culture of the 19th century frontier, I told her that I like westerns.  There was a quick sneer of derision, then we spent the next half hour talking about Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.  By next summer I expect that True Grit will take the place of Unforgiven in these conversations.

I also have these conversations about science fiction (“I hate that crap, except for Avatar, Terminator, and Empire Strikes Back”) and fantasy (“All that pansy elf stuff sucks, but did you see Lord of the Rings?  That rocked!”).  All this leads me to believe that people don’t really dislike westerns, or fantasy, or sci fi.  What they really dislike is bad writing.  A lot of what people think of as westerns are the paperback genre westerns, which I hate to admit are often not that well written.  There are some great ones (Peter Brandvold’s Lou Prophet: Bounty Hunter series comes to mind), but there is a certain amount of mass produced, low expectation novels that are regularly turned out.  Surely there are gems out there, but you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find them.

Somewhere between the high literature of Blood Meridian and Lonesome Dove and the mass produced paperbacks are the westerns that people want to read.  Let me humbly suggest a starter list of engaging and well written westerns:

The Devil’s Lair, Peter Brandvold
Long Ride Home, W. Michael Gear
Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker
Deadville, Robert F. Jones
Bloody Season, Loren D. Estleman

Once you take a stab at a few of these, we can talk James Carlos Blake before you take of Cormac McCarthy.

Via con dios!